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New powers for county court legal advisers to be piloted in bid to ease judicial workload

Richards: proper training [1]

Richards: proper training

Legal advisers, rather than judges, are set to carry out a wide range of ‘judicial’ tasks in the county courts after the Civil Procedure Rule Committee (CPRC) voted in favour of a pilot scheme.

The CPRC opposed allowing legal advisers to carry out a range of tasks at its meeting in November last year, including setting aside default judgments and dealing with applications for interim payments.

In response, according to minutes of last month’s CPRC meeting, the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, Deputy Head of Civil Justice Lord Justice Richards, and District Judges Chris Lethem and Mike Hovington reconsidered the pilot proposals.

A revised list of tasks was drawn up, with limitations put on some of them – interim payments, adding or substituting parties and applications to make counterclaims after defences had been filed – making it clear that the parties must consent.

“It was considered that the work set out in the revised list could properly be entrusted to a legal adviser for the purposes of a pilot and on the basis that there would be appropriate training and supervision, together with the right to request reconsideration by a district judge,” the minutes reported.

“As background the Master of the Rolls noted that the use of qualified lawyers to perform certain ‘judicial’ tasks was part of a growing trend dictated by financial constraints and that such a policy already existed within other divisions and was supported by the Lord Chief Justice.

“District Judge Lethem supported the proposals, particularly in view of the increasing jurisdiction of the DJ bench and pressures on district judges. He felt that the package as a pilot exercise supported by training and evaluation was acceptable.

“District Judge Hovington did not agree that the pilot would alleviate the burden on full-time district judges, as to date the work in question had been done by deputy district judges, but he otherwise agreed with District Judge Lethem.”

However, “a number of committee members expressed continuing concerns about the proposal”, particularly over setting aside judgments, adding and substituting parties and interim payments.

The issue was a put to a vote and the majority agreed that the pilot should be adopted. It will run for a year, starting on 1 October 2015.

In a note to the committee, Lord Justice Richards said Lord Dyson had discussed the issue with the Judicial Executive Board, chaired by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, which was “concerned that the approach taken in relation to the county court should not be fundamentally out of line with that taken in relation to other jurisdictions”

The board noted that legal advisers exercised a range of judicial powers in magistrates’ courts and in family courts, and officers of the court who were qualified lawyers exercised its jurisdiction in the Administrative Court and in the Court of Appeal.

In his note, Lord Justice Richards said legal advisers would be entrusted with their new functions only when they had received proper training and their work under the pilot would be carried out “in practice” at the County Court Money Claims Centre in Salford.

“At Salford, the legal advisers will have immediate access to, and sit in the same room as, the deputy district judges, and will be subject to supervision and can seek advice and/or pass work across to the deputy district judges as appropriate.”